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On 23 January 1988 a young and inexperienced three-piece rock band entered a studio in Seattle, Washington to record a demo they hoped would arouse the interest of a local label. Running through ten songs that they had developed on the city’s live circuit the tape was recorded in one afternoon with few overdubs for barely $150. That evening, the band took to the stage at the Community World Theater in Tacoma and performed the same songs in front of an enthusiastic audience, appearing under the name Ted, Ed and Fred.
The tape that they had recorded earlier that day would reach the ears of only a handful of listeners, yet it would be the man responsible for overseeing the session who would ultimately bring the group to the attention of rising label Sub Pop. ‘That demo was seventies riff rock with a slightly weird post-punk angularity,’ producer Jack Endino told journalist Everett True years later. ‘The thing that separated it from anything else was the singing. His voice had a lot of character and he had a weird ear for melody, he wouldn’t be following the guitar riffs like typical idiot riff-rock.’ A few months after the recording of the demo the band changed their name to Nirvana.
1988 was an important milestone for the Seattle music scene, as the newly-formed Sub Pop signed several promising acts onto its roster. Soundgarden had released their first EP Screaming Life a few months earlier and were now commencing work on its follow-up while Mudhoney would issue their own mini-album Superfuzz Bigmuff later that year. Both groups, along with Nirvana, would become key figures in the city’s so-called grunge scene, a style of alternative rock that would reinvent the genre and ultimately bring an end to the popular-yet-critically reviled ‘hair metal’ that was dominating Los Angeles. Many of the bands that would emerge from Seattle during this time were heavily influenced by such post-punk rock acts as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., as well as the Pixies, whose song structure and pop sensibility would inspire Nirvana’s more commercial work.
Long before becoming the reluctant voice of a generation, frontman Kurt Cobain grew up in a dysfunctional family, with his parents divorcing when he was a child and the youngster being forced to move home at regular intervals. He was given a guitar when he was just eight, a present from his Aunt Mari, whose home Cobain would record his first demo at several years later. ‘As soon as I got my guitar I just became so obsessed with it,’ he later explained to biographer Michael Azerrad.
While his own music would be heavily inspired by punk, his earlier influences would come from a variety of different artists such as AC/DC, the Beatles, Aerosmith and even ABBA. But it would not be until 1985, when Cobain was eighteen, that he would finally form his own group, which he christened Fecal Matter. This short-lived band would feature several members of popular local act the Melvins, while Cobain and two of his fellow musicians would record a home demo entitled Illiteracy Will Prevail.
Despite the collapse of Fecal Matter Cobain had enjoyed performing in a band and writing songs with other artists, but it would be with another local musician, Krist Novoselic, that he would finally find the right chemistry. ‘This is around the time I met this person named Kurt Cobain,’ said Novoselic in his autobiography Of Grunge & Government: Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy!. ‘If I am to speak about independence I need to mention one of the most independent people I’ve ever met. Kurt was a completely creative person – a true artist.’ Along with drummer Aaron Burckhard, Cobain and Novoselic formed their own group and after long discussions finally settled on Skid Row. Ironically, there was another group who had formed on the other side of America, in the New Jersey town of Toms River, that had also taken the same name, eventually releasing their eponymous debut in 1989 to considerable success.
Even as they began to perform together as Skid Row Cobain and his new bandmates also collaborated with other local musicians around Seattle including members of the Melvins, resulting in such side projects as the Sellouts, Stiff Woodies and Brown Cow, yet writing and playing original material was always his main objective. Skid Row made various appearances in the area, both at house parties and small clubs around Aberdeen, Raymond and Seattle. During a party at a house in Raymond the band were so drunk that they managed to alienate most of their audience.
In an interview Options years later Cobain recalled the evening; ‘We were really drunk so we started making spectacles of ourselves. Playing off the bad vibes we were giving to the rednecks, you know – jumping off tables and pretending we were rock stars…Then we started playing Sex Bomb for about an hour and our girlfriends were hanging on us and grabbing our legs and doing a mock lesbian scene and that really started freaking out the rednecks.’
Soon it became clear that their relationship with Burckhard was coming to an end and so Cobain and Novoselic began searching for a replacement, something that would haunt the band until the arrival of Dave Grohl in 1990. With Burckhard out of the picture Cobain ran an ad in a local magazine called the Rocket, in which he declared, ‘SERIOUS DRUMMER WANTED. Underground attitude, Black Flag, Melvins, Zeppelin, Scratch Acid, Ethel Merman. Versatile as heck.’
Meanwhile, they had become close friends with the Melvins and, in particular, Dale Crover, their well-respected drummer following the departure of Mike Dillard. In January 1988 Cobain contacted a studio in Seattle called Reciprocal Recording and spoke to the producer Jack Endino about booking a recording session. Endino had already gained modest acclaim in the area due to his own group Skin Yard, yet it was his work as a producer that had earned him a reputation around town. It would be the involvement of Crover that had impressed Endino the most and so he agreed to produce the session himself.
Although the band were still relatively inexperienced the threesome had energy, a raw and unpolished sound and a professional drummer overcompensating for his bandmates’ shortcomings. The songs were basic and the lyrics unsophisticated, yet Endino was impressed by what he heard. Among the ten tracks that were recorded at Reciprocal two would be included on the original issue of the band’s debut album, while most of the others would surfaced on the 1992 compilation Incesticide. One of the tracks recorded during this session, Pen Cap Chew, would remain unfinished due to running out of tape during the recording. With the band unwilling to spend a further $40 for another reel they agreed that Endino should fade the song out before the end. The final cost for the session would come to a total of $152.44 and from that they had ten songs that they could try to tempt labels with.
The sound that was starting to emerge from Seattle at this time was the antithesis to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll attitude of such pop rocks bands as Poison and Bon Jovi, who had begun to dominate the metal scene during the mid-1980s with their infectiously catchy upbeat songs and power ballads. The Seattle scene had already started to produce some strong local talent, with members of the influential Green River breaking off into new groups that included Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, the latter eventually evolving into Pearl Jam following the untimely death of their singer Andrew Wood in 1990. Endino had worked with several of these bands and had an ear for potential and following the recording of Cobain and his new group he knew that he had heard something special. Endino made copies of the tape – what fans often refer to as the Dale Demo – and passed them out among his friends, one of which was Jonathan Poneman.
Along with his business partner, Bruce Pavitt, local radio DJ and music promoter Poneman launched the independent record label Sub Pop in Seattle in 1987, naming the company after a fanzine that Poneman had self-published. Their first discovery was Soundgarden, whose first EP Screaming Life the label had financed and released to modest acclaim. While Pavitt was somewhat reluctant to take a chance on Endino’s new discovery Poneman was excited by the demo and tried to convince his partner. As he later recalled in an interview with Carrie Borzillo, ‘He told me, ‘There’s this kid who came in who looks like a car mechanic. He came in with Dale Crover. He lives in Olympia and his name is Kurt.’ And he says, ‘To be honest, I don’t even really know what to make of this tape. It’s awesome but they just bashed it out and it’s really unlike anything I’ve really heard. The guy’s got an amazing voice.”
By this point, having toyed with the a variety of names – including Throat Oyster and Windowpane – the band finally settled on Nirvana, despite a British act having already performed under the same name during the late 1960s. Poneman was finally able to convince Pavitt to take a chance on the young band, but with Crover turning his attention back to the Melvins, Nirvana were once again searching for a new drummer. Following a handful of gigs with a young-yet-bad tempered drummer called Dave Foster, Cobain and Novoselic were introduced to Chad Channing, a resident of Bainbridge Island and former member of local speed metal act Stone Crow, who had seen the band perform at Evergreen State College in Olympia and was invited to replace Foster.
Nirvana would return to Reciprocal on 11 June, almost five months after the recording of the demo, to work with Endino once again, this time to record a single that was to be released by Sub Pop. This would be the first of three sessions – the remaining two taking place on 30 June and two weeks later on 16 July – which would result in a handful of leftover tracks, including such titles as Floyd the Barber, Mr. Moustache and early live favourite Spank Thru. But the main focus would be on the two tracks that were to be included on the single.
While not the band’s first choice Sub Pop had insisted that they record a cover of Love Buzz, a track originally released by Dutch rockers Shocking Blue in 1969. It had found its way into several of Nirvana’s set lists, yet Cobain was understandably frustrated that the A-side would not be one of their own songs. On the reverse side, however, was an original compositions called Big Cheese, a track that had not been recorded during their earlier demo session.
Sub Pop released the Love Buzz/Big Cheese single in November 1988, the same month that saw the arrivals of such diverse offerings as GN’R Lies by Guns N’ Roses and Delicate Sound of Thunder by Pink Floyd. Despite its limited release the single generated a minor buzz among music critics, not only in America but also in Britain and soon the band found that their profile had been raised. ‘After the Love Buzz seven-inch came out they started getting a few more people to their shows,’ Endino was quoted as saying in the book Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. ‘And Kurt was still trying to figure it out – he would play guitar and his singing just didn’t have the power. Ultimately, I think he concluded that he needed to play simpler songs so that he could sing better.’ Already much of what they intended to record for their debut album had become staples of their live sets and soon it was decided that they were to return once again to Reciprocal to commence work on a full-length release.
A fourth musician was signed to the label as a member of Nirvana; Jason Everman. A close friend of Channing, Everman’s time with the band would be brief and his musical contributions limited yet he would play an important part in the history of Nirvana for one simple reason: he offered to pay the studio fees to record the album, then under the working title Too Many Humans. With Endino once again at the producer’s desk the recording sessions for the album would come to a total of $606.16 and while Everman would not play a single note he would be credited as guitarist on the inlay sleeve, as an acknowledgment to his non-musical contribution to the band. On 24 December Nirvana made their way to Reciprocal for the first of several sessions that would ultimately result in their first album which, by the time of its release, would be retitled Bleach.
While only Cobain and Novoselic had been long-serving members of the band they were well-rehearsed by the time they arrived at the studio to record the songs that they had worked hard to develop during their live shows. As Channing recalled in Grunge is Dead, ‘Recording Bleach happened fast. We were in there for I think a week. Recording at Reciprocal – a really cool scene. I always remember Jack sitting there and he had a circle of snacks around him – chocolate bars. We did a lot of weird experimenting with snare sounds. We actually took two snare drums, took the bottom head off one of them and the top head off another, combined the two drums together. So there ended up being this gap between the two snares but I used double-sided screws to link them together. Another thing – Blew was a song that initially was played in D. So when we went to record that song it had turned out that we were already in D and that everyone turned down, or at least Krist did, to C – it was even lower.’
From the very beginning Cobain had become the principal songwriter, with most tracks often based around his guitar riffs, yet while he is now regarded one of the greatest lyricists of his generation he gave little thought to the words at the time of recording their debut album. ‘With Bleach I didn’t give a flying fuck what the lyrics were about,’ he confessed in an interview with Spin in October 1993 while promoting the release of their third and final studio album In Utero. ‘Eighty percent were written the night before recording. It was like, ‘I’m pissed off. Don’t know what about. Let’s just scream negative lyrics and as long as they’re not sexist and don’t get too embarrassing it’ll be okay.’ I don’t hold any of those lyrics dear to me.’
Both the song arrangement and lyrics to many of the tracks recorded during these sessions were relatively basic, in part due to the band’s inexperience but also as they had little time to waste in the studio, often cutting a song with only one or two takes. Nirvana would return to Reciprocal several times over the next month, the first couple of sessions taking place in between Christmas and New Year and then again in mid-January, with the sessions coming to an end on 24 January 1989.
‘Bleach was made in three days,’ Endino would later explain. ‘It was divided up into various little bits here and there, but I mean the total was thirty hours. In those days it was sort of more of a lark. You can only afford three days? Okay, let’s see if we can make a record in three days! And we would do it.’ While at the time Channing was the group’s official drummer two songs would be included on the final track list that featured Crover – Floyd the Barber and Paper Cuts – while a third, Downer, would later be included as a bonus on the CD release.
Bleach was released in the United States in June 1989, two months before it made its way to Europe and three months before Soundgarden’s major label debut Louder Than Love. While it would take the release of Nirvana’s sophomore album Nevermind to bring Bleach to the attention of a wide audience the reviews were mostly positive, praising both the raw guitar and production. Yet it would be Cobain, once again talking to Spin in early 1992, who would be the most critical towards the album. ‘I couldn’t even tell you shit like when Bleach was released. I couldn’t even name the songs on the album.’
The record would later be criticised in the book Chunklet Presents the Overrated Book: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need, in which the authors stated, ‘It’s time to out everyone who claims that Bleach was Nirvana’s best album. Let there be no arguments: the songwriting, arrangements, creativity and (yes) production is much more impressive on later releases. This is simply a good document of a competent Pacific Northwest rock band circa late 80s. Put Bleach up against any Mudhoney release around this time and see who wins.’
To coincide with the release of Bleach Nirvana appeared at Seattle’s Moore Theatre on 9 June at an event called Lamefest ’89, sharing the bill with local groups Mudhoney and TAD, before taking to the road for a short tour of the United States later that month, commencing on 22 June at San Francisco’s the Covered Wagon, despite barely earning enough money from each show for fuel to drive to the next venue. Novoselic, speaking in Of Grunge & Government said, ‘We toured constantly, driving all over North America, playing from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico, Montreal to Florida, Texas and Nebraska, gigging at dozens of little hole in-the-wall clubs. I really enjoyed seeing our vast land, playing shows one town and one night at a time. Small clubs were where people on the outside of the mainstream converged.’
Despite Nirvana having recently released their first album and now touring to promote their music, internal conflicts were putting added pressure on the band. And once again the issue was with the drummer, particularly as far as Cobain was concerned. While the events tend to vary depending on who is telling the story, the common opinion was that Channing was somewhat mistreated and alienated from his bandmates. ‘Sometimes I just felt sorry for Chad,’ Pavitt told Michael Azerad in the biography Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. ‘You could tell that…I didn’t feel that they treated him with a lot of respect.’ Elsewhere, Endino concurred, ‘I can’t speculate on why they fired Chad but I think it was personal, that they didn’t get along. Because I think his drumming had come along quite a ways by the time they got rid of him. He had a style he was adding. He was getting there.’ Regarding their decision to fire Channing, Cobain simply told Azerad, ‘He really had bad timing and he wasn’t a very powerful drummer.’
While Cobain may have been openly critical of several former band members, even going as far as telling one interviewer that prior to adding Dave Grohl to the group for the recording of Nevermind ‘all the other drummers we had pretty much sucked,’ Channing himself has remained somewhat tight-lipped and diplomatic about the experience. ‘I have no regrets because I always thought that things just sort of fall in place for a reason. For example, I was that perfect puzzle piece for the band at the time and then they needed another piece to do other things and stuff,’ he explained in a 2018 interview with KaaosTV. ‘Our differences were strictly on a musical level. We always stayed friends. In fact, I remember the first time I saw them with Dave at this place called the OK Hotel. It was the first time I’d seen the guys in probably a year or so and it was really good to see them. It was like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ It was very friendly.’
By the time that Channing departed from Nirvana in 1990 the band were already on the verge of landing a major record deal, but without a full-time drummer this seemed highly unlikely. After briefly considering Dan Peters of Mudhoney, who would agree to provide drums on the band’s next single Sliver, Cobain and Novoselic attended a show in San Francisco where a hardcore punk band called Scream were performing. Impressed with the drummer, an energetic and charismatic young man called Dave Grohl, they became determined to entice him into Nirvana.
‘Someone told me who they were and I was thinking, ‘What, that’s Nirvana? Are you kidding?’ Because on the cover of Bleach they looked like psycho lumberjacks,’ Grohl was quoting as saying in Paul Brannigan’s biography This is a Call. ‘But I loved Bleach, I thought it was great. It had everything that I really loved about music. It had the Beatles influence on About a Girl and then songs like Paper Cuts and Sifting were heavy as balls. And Negative Creep was amazing. And girls liked Nirvana.’ Grohl would take to the stage for the first time as an official member of Nirvana on 12 October 1990 at the North Shore Surf Club in Olympia, Washington.
As Rolling Stone would recall twenty-seven years later, ‘In a clip filmed during that performance the band is seen playing to a sweaty, engaged crowd and it showcases their new drummer, shirtless and hair flying as he propels the songs’ frenetic, thunderous beats. Grohl’s live Nirvana premiere included a rendition of Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz, which Nirvana had recorded as a single in 1988. The trio also performed Nirvana’s Scoff and Sliver as well as a cover of Devo’s Turn Around.’ By this point the new line-up of Nirvana had already entered the studio to commence work on what would become their major label debut, having courted the interest of DGC Records. This time taken under the wing of Butch Vig, a producer whose résumé included Gish, the recently-released first album from the Smashing Pumpkins, Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl would divide their time between studios in Wisconsin and California, yet despite the good fortune that had befallen them Cobain proved to be unpredictable. Kurt was awesome to work with but he was incredibly moody,’ recalled Vig in an interview with NME decades later. ‘That was the thing, was to figure out when he was going to be focused or when he was going to disappear into himself.’ Regardless, Grohl’s first release with his new band was the single Smells Like Teen Sprit, which was released through Geffen on 10 September 1991 and would eventually become an anthem for the Generation X teens of the ’90s. Their second studio album Nevermind followed two weeks later. The world was never quite the same again…